The great thing about schooling in France has to be the canteen. No lunch box here, I am talking proper refectory, with chefs, commis and a couple of lovely dinner ladies. Believe me; I have eaten in worse restaurants, with worse service! The head chef, Mr Raymond, was a big brash colourful character, quite partial to kids who acknowledged and complemented on his trade; as a reward, he would look at you with a doubtful pouting frown and a raised eyebrow, before topping your plate with extra sauce or roasted potatoes.
“Chips” had been banned the previous year by the new Principal as “it was making the pupils way too excited”. That’s right my friends, it was hard to catch a break in those days and the line between fun and felony was very thin. There was also the younger and very friendly Julie on starters and desserts, with her amazingly voluptuous 80’s red curly perm; in her defense, it was 1987, a time when some young men and women would drive their badly pimped cars, with fluffy stirring wheels and their names stuck on top of the windscreen. That is how we knew her name and she played the game of pretending to be surprised, every time very well. My friend Jerome and I enjoyed a few giggles with our favourite lunch lady, she had a soft spot for him, maybe because he was genuinely funny or just a bit short for his age, or maybe both; who cares, there was nearly always a second dessert kept for us, given with a charming complicit wink. This wasn’t a school for God sake, it was a freaking penitentiary!
In the fortress that was this secondary school (10 to 14 years old), pupils were separated in three groups, depending on how close you lived from the College. “Externs” were allowed to leave the compound from 12 to 1:45 pm for their lunch breaks, the others, interns or like myself “semi-interns”, were to stay inside the yard, waiting for their group to be called on the loud speaker phones. Escaping was futile and the penalty for going AWOL for a quick lunch outside, was not worth the crime for simple freedom; plus our attendance in the refectory was recorded so any escapade was futile and promised to be doomed. The problem was, feeding hundreds of kids in an hour and thirty minutes was a bit of a logistical nightmare; you might be lucky to go first one day, you might eat last the next. Those were the fair rules; we knew that and took it on the chin. It was 5 hours since most of us had breakfast and we had to rely on an unusual and just about tolerated practice to snack until our late lunch.
About fifty meters from the heavy ten feet tall metal fence, was a little bakery. We bought our sweets there in the early morning, it was our currency, a way to keep the potential bully sweet and on your side, also a great way to chat up the girl you liked in class. Little beings have customs too you know! The plan was simple. You stand at the gate and with your saddest of looks and misdemeanour, ask a passerby, preferably an old lady, if they could take your two Francs coin to the bakery and buy a baguette for us to share. This wasn’t begging, it was an honest request, a life saving imploration from one young inmate to a compassionate emphatic soul… Ok, ok, it was kind of begging. I found out later, and this is a typical French nonsensical business paradox, that she complained to the Principal that she was running out of baguettes for her customers… The cow! She was making a small fortune with over 600 kids schooled next door. It almost saw our privilege being taken away from us; rumours were spreading like wild fire, the consequences of having our lunch hours without a surviving baguette would be without precedent. This was war!
I believe our Warden Principal agreed to meet her over in the school’s main offices a couple of weeks later; he came up with a clear but manageable plan to keep everybody happy; he was a visionary, a man before his time, a real entrepreneur… A leader! He just told her: “Why don’t you tell your husband to bake more baguettes?”… And that was the end of that my friends!
Keep Well and Eat Happy,
Post scriptum: All photos are from Hungry Breton, apart from the college which came from an old postcard. I haven’t invented time travel yet!